The Lost Tools of Learning

Dear Reader,

I felt that with all I say about education I should probably read Dorothy Sayers’ essay, “The Lost Tools of Learning.” This short piece from 1948 is the foundation of the modern classical education movement. I have blogged on modern classical education (here, here, here and here) but had never read this document. As you know if you have been here any time at all, I take a Charlotte Mason approach to education, so my remarks will make frequent reference to Miss Mason’s ideas. It is hard for me to analyze Sayers’ article without making the comparison to CM.

I didn’t hate Sayers’ article though I did find myself surprised at the end that it should have had such a big impact on education since (well, among homeschoolers at least; it doesn’t seem to have affected our public schools). If it had been just an insignificant little article without the reputation it has, I probably would have liked it even better.

I think Sayers sees a real problem and outlines it well. She sets out her goal clearly:

“I want to inquire whether, amid all the multitudinous subjects which figure in syllabuses, we are really teaching the right things in the right way; and whether, by teaching fewer things, differently, we might not succeed in ‘shedding the load’ (as the fashionable phrase goes) and, at the same time, producing a better result.” (Kindle loc. 22; Sorry, I read this on my Kindle and it does not give page numbers for this article )

Sayers’ saw many problems in her own day including a susceptibility to the influence advertising, an inability of people to debate effectively or to define their terms well, and an inability to remember what one has learned or to apply one’s resources to new subjects. All of these defects have to do with a person’s ability to reason and this is really the main defect Sayers saw in education in her day. It was not giving people the tools they needed to think:

” . . . although we often succeed in teaching our pupils ‘subjects,’ we fail lamentably on the whole in teaching them how to think . . ” (Loc. 84)

The solution she proposes is a return to the educational model of the end of the Middle Ages. Now  I should say here that I really know little about education in the Middle Ages. Sayers presents it as she sees it and her version has become the basis for modern classical education, but I have also heard it said that Charlotte Mason and others are classical as well in that they would conform to some degree to what real classical (not modern) classical was like. My purpose here is not to debate what defines classical or what education was like in the Middle Ages, but only to examine Sayers’ proposals regarding education.

For Sayers, then, the purpose of education is to teach people to reason, to give them the tools they need to deal with new material with particular emphasis on the ability to communicate one’s arguments clearly in both oral and written form (it’s rather daunting to critique such an article actually since I was taught very few of these tools myself). Her proposal, based on the educational model of the Middle Ages as she sees it, divides education into two big chunks: the Trivium which goes through about age 16 and the Quadrivium which would begin then and really be more like our college-level work in that one is older and focuses on specific subjects of interest. Thus far, I don’t think Charlotte Mason would have any disagreement. She too believed in a  broad-based education for children with specialization only coming as one matures.

Where we begin to differ is in what happens within the Trivium. Sayers divides it into three parts: “Grammar, Dialectic, and Rhetoric in that order” (Loc. 96). These should be very familiar if you know anything about modern classical education. The goal of this first stage of education, which you will remember extends to about age 16, is not to teach subjects but to teach the child how to deal with subjects. I don’t want to spend too much time on defining  these three sub-stages of the Trivium, but here is Sayers’ synopsis of them:

“First [in the Grammar stage], he learned a language; not just how to order a meal in a foreign langauge, but the structure of langauge, a langauge, and hence of langauge itself, what it was, how it was put together and how it worked. Secondly [in the Dialectic stage], he learned how to use langauge: how to define his terms and make accurate statements; how to construct an argument and how to detect fallacies in argument (his own arguments and other people’s). Dialectic, that is to say, embraced Logic and Disputation. Thirdly [in the Rhetoric stage], he learned to express himself in langauge; how to say what he had to say elegantly and persuasively.” (Loc. 100)

One stumbling block I have always had with classical education, which Sayers here admits, is that it is very hard to teach one how to learn without some sort of material to practice on. So much time is spent in the Grammar stage in collecting material, that is memorizing facts. These are the raw material on which the student will learn to use his tools as he advances. It is largely irrelevant what facts the child learns so long as he has something on which to work when the time comes (though Sayers spends some time advocating the learing of Latin because it is an inflected langauge). She cautions teachers against thinking that their particular subject is overly important except “as a gathering-together of material for use in the next part of the Trivium” (Loc. 221). In the Grammar stage, she says, ” . . . anything and everything which can usefully be committed to memory should be memorised  . . . , whether it is immediately intelligible or not” (Loc. 223).

I would agree with Sayers that younger children do have remarkable memories and are very adept at picking up new information, especially languages. Sayers, however, goes well beyond this observation. Based on her own experience, she lines up each of the three sub-stages with a stage in the child’s actual development:

“Looking back upon myself (since I am the child I know best and the only child I can pretend to know from inside) I recognise in myself three stages of development. These, in a rough-and-ready fashion, I will call the Poll-parrot, the Pert, and the Poetic, the latter coinciding, approximately, with the onset of puberty. The Poll-parrot stage is the one in which learning by heart is easy and, on the whole, pleasurable; whereas reasoning is difficult and, on the whole, little relished . . . The Pert Age . . . is characterised by contradicting, answering-back, liking to ‘catch people out’ (especially one’s elders) and in the propounding of conundrums . . . The Poetic Age is popularly known as the ‘difficult’ age. It is self-centred; it yearns to express itself; it rather specialises in being misunderstood; it is restless and tries to achieve independence; and, with good luck and good guidance, it should show the beginnings of creativeness, a reaching out towards a synthesis of what it already knows, and a deliberate eagerness to know and do some one thing in preference to all others.” (Loc. 169)

This is when things really begin to fall apart for me. Sayers admits that the stage she sees are based on her own experience. They cannot be otherwise. But my experience and observation differ. My children (ages 8-13 at the moment, placing them in both her Grammar and Dialectic stages, and the eldest on the verge at least of Rhetoric) are better than I am at remembering things. But they also are decent at reasoning. And they like to reason. They are also very creative (some more than others) and one at least knows, and has known for a while, what she wants to do with her life (be an artist — very creative). I would agree here with Charlotte Mason that children are born whole persons, with all their faculties intact. This sort of training of the faculties is just the sort of thing Charlotte rails against again and again. She would say, on the contrary, that all we need to do is give children a generous diet of good materials (books, music, art, etc) and that they know just how to digest this intellectual food for themselves. Just as we do not need to teach (most healthy normal children; I have known exceptions) how to eat food, we do not need to teach them how to digest their intellectual food. They are born with those skills.

Sayers is taking her own experience and memory of what childhood was like and generalizing it to all children. Her system is based on that. I perhaps am not doing anything different but that my own perception of childhood, both my own and my children’s, is very different. I start with the observation that children are quite capable of intellectual activity and creativity even at very young ages and add to that my belief (which I consider biblical) that they are complete persons and come out at a very different place.

I don’t want to badger Sayers too much, but she does seem to have some ideas of children which are really affecting her assessment of what they can do. This seems to be particularly true in the second, Dialectic, stage which would be the tween and early teen years. She says of these children that they “are intolerable anyhow; and that their natural argumentativeness may just as well be canalised to good purpose as allowed to runaway into the sands” (Loc. 282). Sayers assumes that teens are innately rebellious (see the longer quote above) and that tweens are contrary by nature. Now as my own kids are just entering some of these stages, I hate to commit myself, but I don’t believe tweens and teens need to be these ways. And I hate to subscribe to an educational philosophy that starts with the assumption that children are not going to be enjoyable at these ages and that we might as well capitalize on their natural bents and use them for our purposes. Indeed, at one point I wondered if Sayers even likes children at all when she says “elders who have abandoned the wholesome principle that children should be seen and not heard have no one to blame but themselves” (Loc. 283 ). Is this really the attitude of someone I want to take my educational philosophy from?

Not surprisingly, Sayers approach relies very heavily on the teachers. True education, for her, is not something a child could achieve on their own. They need rather to be equipped by knowledgeable teachers who themselves need to have had the right kind of training. This again contrasts with a Charlotte Mason education in which the teacher plays a relatively minor role, the main part of which is to simply supply the right intellectual material on which the student, through his or her own innate abilities, will feast. Though it is not so explicit, this again tells me that Sayers does not trust or respect children very much.

So Charlotte Mason (and I along with her) would disagree with Sayers on the nature and innate abilities of the child. We would also disagree on the purpose of education and the limits of Reason. Sayers whole approach is based on reason. Her goal for the child is that they should learn how to learn for themselves (Loc. 358). All the problems she outlined at the beginning of this work are very real and I would agree that they are problems. But they are all about thinking — we are too easily persuaded, we have no idea what it means to define our terms when we argue, and so on. But there are larger problems. Sayers at no point discusses morality or the need to shape anything other than our children’s minds. To me this is a very narrow goal and of much less importance than affecting their characters. Charlotte, in contrast, aims to shape the whole person. The question she asks at the end of a child’s education is not how well he can argue or express himself nor even how well he can learn but how much does he care.

So Sayers sets her sights on the wrong target. But she also exalts Reason to a dangerous level. For her the ability to present one’s view logically seems to be the highest attainment. But Charlotte in many places cautions us against letting our reason run away with us. Reason is one tool we are given but it, like the rest of our human natures, is fallen and can easily lead us astray. People are wonderfully adept at coming up with logical arguments to support whatever sinful thing they already want to do. I recently came across this quote from Charlotte which seems to speak just to Sayers’ argument:

 “. . . persons whose education has not enriched them with knowledge store up information (statistics and other facts), upon which they use their reasoning powers; that the attempt to reason without knowledge is disastrous . . . ” (Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 246)

Doesn’t this sound just like Sayers’ (and by extension the modern classical) approach — to store up facts upon which to use the reasoning powers? But Charlotte’s point is that true knowledge is a much deeper and broader thing (and for an idea of what she is talking about in this section, read this post).

In conclusion, then, I didn’t hate Sayers’ article. I think she does a good job of pointing out some of the problems with education as she (and we) know it. And I think she’s right that many, many children come out of our schools with little ability to think (myself included). But I cannot agree with her solutions. I think she has a warped and negative view of children, that she does not recognize the limits of human reason, and that she is aiming for  a very narrow target which is purely intellectual and ignores all other aspects of our human state, including especially our morality (or lack thereof). It saddens me that so many Christian families accept the theories based on this one article when it seems so flawed to me.



10 responses to this post.

  1. […] philosophy is coming from if we can tease out how it answers these questions (for an example, see my post on Dorothy Sayers’ “Lost Tools of Learning“; you could also look at my many posts on the different approaches to […]


  2. […] Tools of Learning,” which is the cornerstone of modern classical education (see my review here), her statements about children are actually  a bit shocking; she doesn’t seem very fond […]


  3. Posted by Lisa Palermo on April 4, 2015 at 2:45 am

    This was a great post. Im currently leaving the “modern” Classical Model and Classical Conversations and implementing Charlotte Mason’s methods, so it was great to run across this. I praise our Lord that I found Charlotte Mason and believe her way is truely connecting to the Holy Spirit. Our home is so different now that we have made some CM changes, we have 4 sons and it is amazing what some guidance in the right dirrection from someone, who is one with Christ as Charlotte Mason was can do. My heart leaps, for this is the presence of Christ in our life. My home is now looking the way I dreamed it would, we went from freaked to faith and enjoying its peace.


    • That’s wonderful to hear, Lisa. Personally I feel that Charlotte Mason’s way is very biblical. Thanks for taking the time to comment.


  4. Very helpful post. I’m linking to it on my Classical Education page. I haven’t seen much written about her ideas regarding Classical Education although they are pretty well accepted by many modern Classical educators.


  5. […] often talking of a certain version of the classical philosophy of education which was reignited by Dorothy Sayers’ famous article. When one asks in this context if Charlotte Mason was a classical educator, the answer is no; I […]


  6. […] The Lost Tools of Learning by Dorothy L. Sayers (and my review here) […]


  7. Posted by Bek Motley on October 21, 2016 at 12:13 am

    I’ve found Sayers’ article quite thought provoking, though I differ in my conclusions about the ages and stages of the trivium. Yes I believe that there is a grammar, dialectic and rhetoric stage, but my conclusion after thinking on my own approach to learning as well as close and thoughtful observation of my 4 very different children, is that these stages are not restricted to developmental age groupings. Rather, I have noted time and again, that these stages occur within the subject or topic at hand, depending on how deep the individual student goes. From a very early age at least two of my children regularly pass through all three of these stages on any topic that really interests or intrigues them.
    They naturally go through a grammar phase when they are initially fact gathering, then through discussion and perhaps deeper reading, pass onto the dialectic phase of things, first raising one issue then another, closely examining from different angles and making comparisons (forming connections) then, after cogitating upon these conclusions, perhaps quite some time later, they announce (seemingly out of the blue at times) a well thought-out explanation why they feel such-and-such is so. Naturally the announcement or ‘speech’ is not as sofisticated as an older and more experienced student, but I am continually amazed by their depth of reasoning and the quiet thinking that goes on in the background.
    By restricting children to these phases by using their age as a guide, I feel that we may be hindering not only their academic growth, but as the scriptures refer to, their power of reason.


    • Interesting. I think you may have something there. Personally I have never been satisfied in my own mind about stages in learning. I do believe children are fully formed capable people yet there is no denying that there is change over time. I will have to pay attention to whether my children also seem to do this. Thanks for taking the time to comment.


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